Saturday, November 10, 2018

Who We Are: Reflections on the 2018 Election

Since we're in the post-election season of "what did it all mean?", I might as well throw my thoughts into the arena. Finding meaning in events is one of the most important things we do, because the meanings we construct become the world we inhabit.

I would start with an observation. We think of elections as tools, as moments when we can change who we are as a society. While this is true to some degree, I think it is more the case that elections are mirrors that who reveal who we were already but perhaps failed to recognize.

Lot of folks want to characterize elections as a referendum on either people or policies. Both can be true to a point - there are some single-issue voters (though not many), and there are some voters who become particularly attached to (or repulsed by) a particular political figure. Political parties know this, and spend a lot of time trying to make these the salient points, because these are things they can try to control.

Elections, it should be noted, are also about a ton of local things. Trying to look across a landscape of 435 House races, ~33 Senate races, and a number of state governorships to find some common theme is a bit of a fool's errand. Tip O'Neill was largely right - a lot of politics is indeed local.

Nevertheless, this set of midterms more than most had a national flavor to it. Much of that was driven by a White House far more active not only in campaigning, but in trying to drive the agenda and the conversation. Much of that agenda, especially in the final weeks of the campaign, turned on issues of immigration, which are really issues about Identity - who is Us and who is Them.

This surprises no one, because the Us/Them theme has been central to the current President since the moment he started campaigning (and, likely, for many years before that). Donald Trump has never been accused of being a "big tent" sort of person, and I don't know that he's ever given a speech, the primary theme of which was what unites Americans. That's a significant departure - every past President, Republican and Democrat, has given some version of that speech, usually many times. Think of Ronald Reagan's "City on a Hill" or Bill Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century" or Barack Obama's "there is no 'Red America' and 'Blue America'", or George W's impromptu bullhorn speech after 9/11.

So with the Who We Are question on the ballot this year, what do the election results tell us?

The results should surprise no one: they revealed a divided country. Many millions of Americans still believe in America as the land of equal opportunity, the "nation of immigrants" that embraces people from all around the world in tolerance and community, the America of "bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses". Particularly in the cities but increasingly in the suburbs as well, this America has reacted very negatively to the President's approach and to a message of division and exclusion.

Yet many other millions of Americans believe in a different America - one that in which people like them are (or should be) the dominant group, where their particular race or culture sets the standard, where people who do not fit that mold are to be feared, or subjugated, or driven away. Their America, they believe, is under threat from Them. They believe that the central challenge of this time is to drive back that threat, already far advanced, so that things will be Great Again. There is some of this view everywhere, of course, but it is more concentrated in rural areas and smaller communities, often themselves very homogeneous.

The latter group has known about the former for a long time. Folks in rural areas have always been subjected to the cultural pressures of the city, especially over the last century as mass communication (radio, television) has driven much of our national communication and entertainment. This group didn't particularly like the changes it saw, coming from the more urbanized, wealthy, and liberal America, but they were always aware of them.

The former group, however, has been quite surprised in recent years by the size, even the existence, of the latter. Many well-educated urban and suburbanites have been convinced, between their own daily existence and their presence in mass media, that their cosmopolitan view of the world was the dominant one, and that other views were dwindling if not mostly dead. The tendency of urban centers to view less-populated areas as "flyover country" didn't help much.

When elections were contested on policies and well-known personalities, this divide didn't matter a lot. Politicians could selectively play on it, but tended to stick to other alignments more in keeping with their vision of political parties as aggregations of policy preferences (tax cuts vs. gov't spending, more or less regulation, guns vs. butter, that sort of thing).

To the extent that the parties are realigning around identity politics, we're starting to see where people stand on the Who We Are question much more clearly - because now it matters. Whatever else may be, Donald Trump has managed to bring this question front and center of the American political debate.

The divide of identity was already and always there. It will not go away if Trump loses the election two years from now, or even if he is impeached and thrown out of office by Feb. 15. None of this is about who the President is. It's about who we are.

In response to a number of recent events - the synagogue shooting in my old neighborhood being only the latest - many people have proclaimed, "we're better than this". They have wanted to believe that we as a nation are not violently racist, that we really do believe in the "nation of immigrants", in tolerance and acceptance and equality of opportunity. They want to believe this because they themselves believe it and had thought that this was a settled question.

Unfortunately, the statement "we're better than this" is only true for a limited definition of "we". Some of us are clearly not "better", if by "better" we mean tolerant of difference and embracing of diversity. For a host of reasons, "we" - all Americans together - don't fit that description. We are not, as a people, all at that table.

This really shouldn't surprise us, except for the power of wishful thinking. All of us want to believe that everyone else thinks the way we do, because that's a far more comfortable world to live in. Folks in the "America First" camp never had that luxury - they knew, through their televisions and movies and whatnot, that theirs was not the only view in the world. They persisted anyway, invisible to everyone else until recently.

So where do we go from here? That depends, as always, on the end goal. If we want to work towards a nation with a shared understanding of Who We Are, then we need to start listening to each other - on both sides. That will be hard, and it will take a long time, and we will have to ignore screeching politicians who want to use our different views for their own factious purposes. And it will take commitment on both sides - a genuine desire to forge a common view of America that doesn't just involve imposing our views on the other side.

An alternative is to negotiate a workable detente. In some sense, this is already happening - people are increasingly moving to areas where their view of Who We Are is better represented, separating themselves from people who think differently. To the extent that different areas have different views, and they can agree to leave each other alone, that can work.

But we all live under one government and one set of laws. Our federalist structure means that we can finesse that to a point, as long as we're willing to let other areas be different. But on some larger questions, we can't just agree to disagree and call it a day. Equality under the law means that we share the same law.

The third possibility is that the conflict itself comes to define us. Short of a genocidal civil war, identity conflicts like this aren't solvable by force (and usually, not even then). There is no "winning" in this "fight". Indeed, "fight" is really the wrong analogy entirely. No one ever succeeded in getting someone else to agree with them via a Twitter war.

So it may be that Who We Are for the foreseeable future is this: two nations, sharing space and laws, that cannot agree. I wrote back on the eve of the 2016 election that America is Dying. Looking back on that post through the lens of this election, I am afraid I was right, and that we have gone farther down that road in the years since. Our third possibility is to recognize that America, as one nation at peace with itself, is gravely ill, and to wait and hope for healing.

When we are in conflict, elections are the last thing we need. Elections do not heal, they exacerbate conflict. They can, sometimes, clarify the situation in much the same way that a biopsy can tell you if you have cancer or not. But at best they are diagnostic. They don't make things better, and they may well make things worse.

So this, then, is the real choice of our time. Not Democrats or Republicans. Not Trump or anti-Trump. Not Red or Blue. We must decide what we want to be: One Nation, or Two. The question is not whether we want to Make America Great Again. The question is, Who is America?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Foreign Policy and Hate Crimes: The Interactions Between International & Domestic Politics

In the discussions swirling around last Saturday's tragic killings in Pittsburgh, one dimension has struck me as particularly interesting. While many (including myself) have argued that the current President has contributed to an atmosphere of anger and hatred in our broader society (and thus bears some responsibility for Saturday's horror), others have countered that the President cannot possibly be to blame because he is (in the words of a number of supporters) the "most pro-Jewish President" in recent history.

This latter defense turns on the Trump Administration's foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel. This Administration has taken a number of steps long desired by a certain segment of the Israeli political spectrum, in particular moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the capital city of the state of Israel. The President cannot possibly be anti-Semitic, it is argued, because he has done things that are deemed to be pro-Israel.

There are at least two problems to this line of reasoning. First, it conflates the political preferences of the current Likud-led government in Israel with the interests and preferences of all Jews worldwide. Moving the Embassy, taking a harder line with Palestinians, and so forth are not universally held positions even within Israel, much less throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Some Israelis applaud these moves, others condemn them. From an American point of view we ought not to presume that we understand (or can speak for) an entire people on the basis of a particular list of policy preferences, especially when those preferences are so obviously and publicly contested.

This argument also conflates the interests of the Israeli state (defined in a specific way) with the interests of the Jewish Diaspora, which ignores another very complex relationship - a topic for another day.

The second and more interesting problem lies in the blending of foreign policy with domestic policy. The crux of the argument is that "anti-Semitic" is a one-dimensional matter: one either is or isn't, and that this is true across all possible policy and political domains. Because President Trump has done good things for Israel in the foreign policy arena, he therefore cannot be an anti-Semite, nor could he be accused of doing things that are bad for the Jewish community. This sort of simplistic, one-dimensional assumption is very American. It's also, of course, wrong.

Foreign and domestic policy issues occupy different, though connected and overlapping, realms. This administration in particular seems to struggle with the connections between different issues areas, often playing one game in one arena only to discover that those same moves are having different effects on a different game board. No one, not even supporters of the administration, have accused it of an excess of professionalism, and a mastery of two-level games dynamics is something only gained through long professional experience. So it's not surprising that there's not much understanding here.

In this case, it is possible both to be a supporter of a particular Israeli policies preferences while also engaging in behavior that fosters and foments anti-Semitism domestically. A part of the one-dimensional defense involves intention: if I don't mean to be anti-Semitic, I can't be. But this desire to pin everything on intentions both ignores the fact that actions have unintended consequences, and leaves out a third category between pro- and anti-: a lack of concern for those consequences.

There is little argument that Donald Trump, as a private citizen, a candidate, and President, has fed and fomented all manner of conspiracy theories. Many of these things, like the "birther" craze, fed specifically into conspiracies much-loved by White Nationalist movements, as did his apparent support for those movements in the wake of the Charlottesville conflict last year. He continues to re-tweet and otherwise communicate out all manner of conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims, built around terms like "deep state" and "fake news".

The thing about White Nationalism is that it has always been anti-Semitic at its heart. Nearly all of the many and varied conspiracies floated by people in that circle sooner or later loop back to one grounding belief: that Jews control the world, to the intended detriment of (Christian) White Civilization. Not all White Nationalists believe this - but a great many of them do. The extensive and now widespread vilification of George Soros is just the latest iteration of this belief, which stretches back at least to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax over 100 years ago.

This is how we get from continued attacks on Central American migrants (which the President continued in tweets over the last couple of days, continuing unfounded assertions about who those people are) to hatred of Jews. These things seem unconnected, and undoubtedly in Mr. Trump's mind they are. But to White Nationalists, they are all part of the same fabric, which is why Mr. Bowers leapt so easily from fearing a caravan of Spanish-speaking immigrants to believing that Jews are committing genocide against "his people".

We are in a political age in which once-fringe political views have become increasingly mainstream. Many politicians, far more tactical than strategic, have adopted all manner of uncompromising views because they think it necessary to win elections, or to protect themselves from being outflanked by someone more vociferous and outrageous. Old theories about running "out" to the wings for primaries and then back to the center for general elections have gone by the wayside. It's all fringe now.

The thing is, most Americans don't really live out on those fringes. But because those who are most likely to vote do, we're left with little choice when we go to the ballot box. Or we don't vote, ceding yet more territory to those few in number but loud of voice.

Having fueled this mess, our national political conversation won't save us from it. Our real hope is in local, personal, real community. We need to rediscover Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local". We can learn to live and work together, not just despite our differences but made stronger by them. We just need to stop listening to the far-away voices of anger and rage, and start listening to each other in real conversation.